Basketball in Nebraska is basketball in Nebraska, but two years can make quite a difference.
In December of 2018, A.J. Plitzuweit was doing just that, taking the floor in tiny Wayne, Nebraska, to take on the Wayne State Wildcats. Back then, Plitzuweit was a freshman guard jumping into his role in the backcourt for the Augustana Vikings, a program in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that had put a Division II national title in its trophy case two years prior.
Plitzuweit was a big addition for the Vikings, as the reigning South Dakota Mr. Basketball had averaged nearly 34 points per game as a high school senior. He was an immediate part of a Vikings team trying to regain its national prominence, scoring 10 points that night against Wayne State and hitting a clutch three late in a game Augustana would ultimately win at the buzzer. Two years later, Plitzuweit was back in Nebraska.
But this time on a much bigger stage.
This past December, Plitzuweit poured in 24 points against Nebraska — Big Red, flagship Nebraska — in Pinnacle Bank Arena, which in a non-pandemic world has a capacity that is nearly triple the population of Wayne, Nebraska. The now-redshirt sophomore put up those points on equal footing with the Cornhuskers, having transferred up a division to South Dakota in 2019.
“There are a lot of good players [in Division II] that just haven’t been given the chance,” said Plitzuweit.
More and more are getting that chance.
And like Plitzuweit, who’s enjoying a tremendous debut season, more and more are making an impact at college basketball’s highest level. It’s seen at some of the hottest mid-majors, with Winthrop’s undefeated-so-far season led by point forward Chandler Vaudrin (Walsh University) and wing Adonis Arms (Northwest Nazarene), and Loyola Chicago getting crucial minutes from second-leading scorer Tate Hall (University of Indianapolis).
“It’s a changed market,” said Coyotes’ head coach Todd Lee in a 2019 interview. “I think it’s a natural progression to be honest. If high majors are looking at mid-majors, mid-majors would look at Division II.”
Lee would know better than most. The longtime college coach spent three seasons as an assistant at CSU Bakersfield in the late 90’s when it was a Division II power, and then five seasons in charge of Kentucky Wesleyan, which has eight national titles to its name. To him, it just makes sense to consider Division II players that choose to explore their options in jumping upstream.
“If you have a good Division II program, the best players are mid-major players,” he said. “I really believe that. We coached guys at [CSU] Bakersfield that were high major players, and coached guys at [Kentucky] Wesleyan that were mid-major-plus type players. That’s how you win at Division II. I think you have to look at that.”
Tapping into that talent pipeline landed Lee one of the Summit League’s best point guards, and filled a big need on a team looking to yet again compete for a conference title. And in Plitzuweit, it led to a fit that just made too much sense.
The coach’s kid comes home
After blitzing score sheets at Vermillion High in Vermillion, South Dakota, Plitzuweit knew the type of player that he was, and was looking for a college program that fit.
That ended up being Augustana, where he found a coaching staff he loved and a program an hours’ drive north that allowed him to compete at the top of Division II. He was an instant hit, winning his league’s Freshman of the Year award while scoring 14.4 points per game and leading an 18-team win Vikings team in assists. But in a dose of irony, Augustana’s own flirtation with Division I left Plitzuweit searching for a new home after his freshman season wrapped in 2019.
In 2018, the school had announced its intentions to make the shift up a division. Plitzuweit told the Argus Leader that he had made clear throughout his recruitment that he didn’t want to be part of a transition, but that the move didn’t seem immediate at the time. To avoid having a career without NCAA Tournament eligibility, he hit the transfer market without hard feelings.
That led him home, as the Vermillion prep star had more than just a zip code connection to USD.
Watch any Coyotes game on TV and you’re bound to hear it: Plitzuweit is a coach’s kid. And as far as basketball on the Plains is concerned, he’s not just any coach’s kid. His mom, Dawn, has been the head coach of the Coyotes’ women’s basketball program since 2016, turning it into a Summit powerhouse over that period. It’s a background that Plitzuweit said hasn’t just been a broadcast trope, and has helped him when he’s on the court.
“Having a coach as a parent has definitely helped me out, helped me see the game in a different way,” the redshirt sophomore said. “I’ve got a perspective and see things that probably other players don’t.”
Plitzuweit also got additional perspective upon signing with Lee and the Coyotes. His redshirt transfer year was spent learning from a quartet of senior guards, most of whom had been central to the teams Craig Smith built that came within shouting distance of the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in both 2017 and 2018. With those players out of eligibility this season, especially stalwart point guard Triston Simpson, it left an opening in an important position.
Plitzuweit has eased right in on a team off to a 4-0 Summit League start. He’s averaging more points per game (15.9 PPG) than his lone season in Division II, while registering the Summit’s top assist rate (29.2%). Plitzuweit has also translated his textbook three-point form and ability to find space on the perimeter to further support the Coyotes’ interior star and Summit POY contender Stanley Umude (21.0 PPG, 7.3 RPG).
Like the game in Lincoln, he’s been capable of carrying the team himself as well. Plitzuweit helped USD roar out of the blocks in the first of a back-to-back against Denver early this month, scoring 18 points in the first 10 minutes of the game amid a three-point barrage (5-6 3FG) that ultimately netted him 31 points.
It all, however, hasn’t been without some adjustments.
“The biggest difference has been the size and strength of athletes that I’m playing against, so I’m just getting used to that and getting in my flow and rhythm,” Plitzuweit said.
And he’s not the only one having success amid that transition.
The Division II influx
As the calendar rolls through January, Winthrop stands as one of the few undefeated teams that has played a traditional schedule in light of the pandemic, and the seeds of that were planted in Division II.
Vaudrin, who Basketball Joe’s Chris Schutte called the closest thing college basketball has to Luka Doncic, began his college career as an all-league player at Walsh University in Ohio. Now, he’s a uniquely dangerous playmaker and rebounder playing alongside a wing in Arms who was the 2019 Great Northwest Athletic Conference POY at Idaho’s Northwest Nazarene. The tandem lead one of the country’s fastest and most exciting offensive attacks, and are part of a pipeline that Eagles’ coach Pat Kelsey has continued to cultivate.
Other coaches have taken notice too.
Kobe Nwandu led Niagara to a win over Albany in late December in what has become a tour of Western New York for the Purple Eagles forward. Nwandu followed former Niagara coach Patrick Beilein to the school from Le Moyne, and has emerged as the one of the Purple Eagles more reliable players under Greg Paulus after a redshirt year (12.3 PPG, 3.4 RPG).
The graduate transfer route has also played its part for teams looking for an immediate injection of experience. This past offseason, Belmont Abbey shooting guard Romeao Ferguson was in heavy demand, reportedly getting interest from a swarm of mid-major programs throughout the South.
He landed at Lipscomb, where’s become the co-leading scorer (12.9 PPG) and a perimeter threat on a team challenging again in the ASUN. His 21 points, eight rebounds and three assists this past weekend helped lead the Bisons to a win over North Florida, and validated what coach Lennie Acuff said about him before the season.
“We are excited and thankful to add Romeao to the Bison basketball family,” Lipscomb coach Lennie Acuff said in a release. “We were looking for an experienced, versatile player who could help us right away at multiple positions and we are confident we found that.”
It’s also a trend in the Summit not limited to USD, where Lee has former Nebraska-Kearney guard Kanon Koster on the roster along with Plitzuweit. Oral Roberts’s hot Summit start has been boosted by the addition of by R.J. Glasper, as the former all-league guard at Arkansas Tech has added immediate stability at the point guard position alongside hot-shooting Max Abmas and forward Kevin Obanor. Billy Donlon has also relied on former Wheeling University star Franck Kamgain in Kansas City’s backcourt-centric approach.
For Plitzuweit, there’s something especially meaningful about the chance his move up a division now poses. As a high schooler, he was at the Summit League Tournament final in 2018 where Mike Daum and South Dakota State denied Matt Mooney and the Coyotes their first NCAA Tournament appearance since joining Division I in 2010.
“To see them play and witness it firsthand, and just seeing what they went through, it’s definitely a dream of mine to get to be on the first team in school history to make the tournament,” he said.
It’s not that every upstream transfer is a success story. It only takes a quick scan of VerbalCommits’ transfer page to find a number of Division II players who haven’t, for one reason or another, worked out in Division I. But more and more seem to be getting the opportunity and, like Plitzuweit, are having a hand in big moments on the sport’s biggest stage.